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Forest of Ash

Arisia'17 Student Writing Contest - 4th Place Winner

Forest of Ash

By Wilayna Putterman

The owner of the Blackbird Inn was broad, red-bearded and jovial, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and laughter upon his lips. He was one of the types that could rob you blind and smile all the while. For now he was deep in an animated conversation with one of his lodgers, waving his portly hands as he described the inn breakfast (not complementary). The nervous looking maid behind him cleared her throat, reaching out tentatively to tap him on the shoulder. "Master Wentworth- Master Wentworth, sir!"
"...I tell you, it's well worth the-" he broke off and scowled at the maid, who wished passionately that she could sink into the floor.
"What is it?" Wentworth snapped. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
Wilting, the maid stole a glance at the lodgers, and leaned forward carefully. "Sorry to bother you," she whispered. "I-it's them. They're at it again."
A young man and an orc circled each other, knives in hand. The man held his weapon loosely, more interested in his flask than the orc, who tossed his knife from hand to hand eagerly with an angry gleam in his eyes. "Tamain, I gave you two weeks. Two," growled the orc. "That was more than enough time to get the job done!"
Tamain smirked. "I did."
"After a year!" The orc was breathing heavily, his face flushed with anger. "And yet you still demand money."

"Uh-huh," Tamain agreed, grinning. His eyes felt blurry from drink. "You needed someone to take the fall, in case the job went south." The orc's fists tightened, and Tamain's grin broadened. "Sorry. You owe me, Morzic."
"Drunken pig," spat the orc.

"Coward," Tamain shot back, a note of challenge in his voice.
Morzic growled and tensed to spring, his bone knife held ready. The crowd of bored drinkers cheered as he leapt at Tamain, swinging the knife in an arc at his face. Tamain took a swig from his flask and lurched backward, hiccupping. The orc plowed through a table, jabbing his blade spear-like at Tamain's chest, who managed to block the knife and push it away. With a grunt he swung onto the table behind him, dodging another blow. Tamain raised his knife. "Come on, give me all you've got. I've fought more terrifying chickens!" he taunted gleefully, swaying.
Roaring, Morzic grabbed Tamain by the hair and pulled him, struggling, off the table. The cords on his arms bulged as he squeezed the man in a deadly headlock. The crowd yelled encouragement. Tamain choked; panic filling him as he fought for air. Fingers numb, he fumbled with his knife and slashed it across the orc's arm.
Morzic hollered in pain. When the orc's arms loosened their hold, Tamain smashed an elbow against his face. Morzic let go, and the man stumbled free, falling against a barrel before righting himself. Tamain felt his blood begin to boil.
Now he's done it, Tamain thought, his senses sharpening. He hefted his knife, baring his teeth in a savage smile. "That was just the warm-up."
Tamain squinted, sighting a path for his blade. Then he pulled back his arm and threw it at the approaching orc.
The knife lodged in a barrel an inch below his head, ale squirting out of it. Morzic unpeeled himself from the barrel and glanced from the knife to Tamain, his mouth twisting in a sneer. The crowd booed.
Morzic, laughing, started to move forward. He didn't see the puddle of ale gathered beneath his feet until he slipped in it with a grunt and fell, knocking his head against the barrel on the way down. By the time he hit the floor he was out cold.
"Ha!" Tamain crowed happily, strutting before the wild crowd. He stepped over Morzic's body and filled his flask, raising it above his head to more cheers. "Victory!' he cried, taking a swallow. He was still grinning when his eyes rolled back into his head and he toppled over. The drinkers clapped again before returning to their seats, much satisfied with the entertainment. None had seen the two men in shadowed robes, nor noticed when they slipped away.
The first thing Tamain noticed when he woke in the morning was that his bed appeared to be a hard stone floor. The second, when he tried to straighten, was a beastly hangover. He groaned and clutched at his head.
"Serves you right," said the maid tartly, who had been carefully cleaning around him. "Picking fights with bad apples like Morzic." Tamain blinked at her and smiled winningly. "My dear Ann, you're as beautiful as you are just."
She rolled her eyes. "The master says that if you don't pay your rent soon, then you're out on the street," she relayed, smirking.
Tamain clutched at his heart. "Ah, harsh! The sweet mockingbird bears woe upon its tongue."
Ann giggled behind her hand before composing herself, her eyes dancing. "There's some men asking for you, jester. They said it's a business matter."
"Really?" Tamain sprang to his feel joyfully. "Many thanks!" Grinning devilishly, he tried to kiss her, but she pulled away, smacking at his searching hands. "Your breath still smells of liquor, my Prince," she told him, her face scarlet. As she passed him the broom dipped to whack against his shoulder. He yelped.
"So sorry," she oozed, and marched off. "Don't forget: they're in room ten!"
Tamain rubbed ruefully at his shoulder. He'd deserved that.
Up he went to his room to wash, his curiosity growing all the while. It was possible that
these men, whoever they were, worked for one of his numerous enemies. By then he was knocking at their door.
It creaked open. "What be your name?" enquired a voice warily. Before Tamain could respond a second voice commanded him forward.
He stepped inside carefully, his hands resting on the blades hidden within his vest. They were placed just so, that if he sensed danger they would be in his hands in seconds. In a pouch hidden in his belt he always carried a smoke bomb, in cause he needed to beat a quick retreat.
The room was dimly lit, the windows shut fast and a guttering candle on the table. The musty scent of incense choked the room, and Tamain had to cover his nose, but his potential clients seemed unbothered by it. They both wore robes of inky blue with the hoods raised, so he could only make out the shadow of a mouth, the glint of eyes. One carried a chest. There was silence for a time, until the man on the right spoke.
"You are Tamain Quickmark." It was not a question.
The voice was soft, but cold as frost. Tamain shifted uneasily. "So what if I am?" he asked, cautious.
The man chuckled. "Do not play games with me, bottom-dweller. I am a disciple of the Hidden Eye."
Tamain bit his lip, eyeing the gold trim on the cleric's cloak. This was not a man to be trifled with.
"You have a particular...skill set, do you not?"
"Aye." His senses screamed at him to be more careful, but it was no use to lie. One of them could be a truth-finder.
The cleric smiled thinly, snapping his fingers. The acolyte opened the chest. Tamain felt his eyes grow big, and had to make an effort to school his features. Inside gleamed an array of polished, precious stones and coins, enough to keep a man and his kin in comfort for all their days. He thought longingly of all the ale he could buy if he got his hands on such a bounty. Tamain balled his hands into fists, pinching himself viciously. But no. He had to concentrate; these clerics could be playing him for a fool. "Right. So, ah, what do you need?"
"As disciples of the Hidden Eye, one must look out not only for the interests of our Seer, but for all of the Seven. It is our duty to protect the people under the dominion of each." His mouth quirked. "We are not without our enemies. As such, an enemy of a disciple is an enemy of the Seven, and therefore the realm. They must be dealt with soundly." The cleric tilted his shadowed head toward Tamain. "If you agree to this, it is possible I could put in a word with the Guard."
The jewels winked at Tamain temptingly. "Well...For the sake of the realm, then!" He raised his eyes to meet the cleric's, struggling to keep a dreamy grin of his face. He was already lost in the possibilities.
"It is decided then," said the cleric, a glitter of cunning in his eyes that Tamain was blind to. "Just outside of this city there is a small town by the name of Brin. There is an individual here called Reed who claims to be a holy man. He is a spy: he funnels information to hostile countries. We want him taken care of."
"Yah, yah: sure," Tamain replied, reaching for the chest hungrily. It snapped shut. "Patience," chided the cleric. "It is yours once the job is complete."
Tamain scowled. "This isn't charity. I need a little something up front." The cleric gestured, and his subordinate reached into the chest and pulled out an amulet beaten from gold. It was shaped like a lidded eye, the pupil made of sapphire; the symbol of their Seer.
Tamain snatched it and held the amulet to the light, biting it experimentally. He hardly noticed when the cleric dismissed him, and he was led to the door. He didn't see the map pushed into his hands until he was blinking in the sudden brightness of the hallway.
That night he lay awake, pouring over the map. In broad quill-strokes it showed where Brin was located, the structure of the town, even a red dot where Reed's abode was located. He traced a path with his finger. If he entered town through the side gate, then...then..." Coughing, Tamain broke off the thought, doubling over as his frame was racked with violent heaving. He reached with clammy fingers for the bucket by his bed and threw up into it. Then he fell exhausted on the bed, too tired to wipe the smear of blood from his lips.
A day later he was stabling his horse at the Brin tavern; a tiny, seedy place staffed by shifty-eyed servants. Tamain flipped a coin at the groom. "See to it I'm not followed," he ordered. The bemused groom dipped his head. "Aye, sir."
Brin was a town nestled within a forest, which extended out from the city of Castigan to cover the entire realm. It was barely big enough to fill the streets Tamain had grown up on, and not nearly as busy. It was easy for him to navigate, and long before dark he was settled in the bushes outside Reed's house. House was generous. It was little more than a shack surrounded by a tangled mass of trees. Some townsfolk armed with hoes patrolled outside, but they lacked the discipline of soldiers: getting past them would be trivial. A couple of hours and drinks later the sun had slipped out of sight. His blood tingling with adrenaline, Tamain straightened and ghosted toward the shack, fingering his dagger. It was time to begin his work.
He paused and flattened himself by the door, waiting for the townsfolk, their boots and makeshift weapons clanking, to pass. Then he peered up at the house. Its few windows (too small to enter by) were devoid of light, but that didn't necessarily mean its inhabitant was absent. He rested one gloved hand gently against the door and pushed. It swung open slowly, creaking. Tamain froze. When it became clear the only other sound in the house was his rapidly beating heart he continued onward, cursing himself. Constant vigilance! A slip-up would mean death.
Tamain darted from the door to a wall near the staircase, covered in peeling, faded wallpaper. He was preparing to mount the staircase when his eye was caught by the wallpaper. In ink, someone had sketched a crude drawing of the Axis, a wheel surrounded by the symbols of the Seven. His fingers brushed at the Hidden Eye amulet under his tunic.
Suddenly there was a thud, quiet enough that it could be mistaken for a mouse, but Tamain's trained ears recognized it as human. He palmed his dagger and stole up the stairs softly.
At the top there was a small attic-like room, empty save for a mattress and a coarse blanket. Tamain's eyes fell on the mattress again. No. There was a lump beneath the blanket, and the very faint sound of snoring.
He crept up to the blanket and carefully pulled it aside. The snoring holy man was craggy-faced, with a graying beard and features that seemed to Tamain to contain an air of self- possession, though he was fast asleep.
The assassin was preparing to strike when Reed's eyes shot open, and Tamain hissed, almost loosening his grip on the blade. The holy man's eyes were solid green.
Rattled, Tamain took a breath to calm him, bringing down the dagger as he did so. Reed's hand shot out to grip his wrist. "So much pain," he breathed, something akin to pity in his voice. Tamain tried to pull free, but the holy man's grip was like iron. Reed's brows furrowed. "You are ill." He paused, and his eyes, trained on Tamain's, seemed to pierce his soul. "No, not just ill; Dying."
Tamain's heart filled with dread. "Liar!" he snarled. "You think I haven't dealt with your kind before?" He tore his hand away. "You're trying to unbalance me."
"You do that well enough on your own," Reed said gently, backing away from Tamain's blade. "Drink is not the cure for the red death."
"There isn't any," Tamain whispered. He shuddered, the backs of his eyes burning. He had never felt so vulnerable. Angrily Tamain wiped at the tears, his sorrow hardened into anger; then, roaring, he hurled the dagger at Reed's chest.
The holy man melted away into leaves. This time Tamain did drop the dagger, stunned. A woman, carved from wood, stood in Reed's place. Her hair was made of spring leaves, and her eyes glowed solid forest-green. She was wrapped in a silken dress embroidered with a golden tree, its branches reaching for the star above it. The thing breathed in deeply, exhaling a greenish mist. She turned to Tamain, still frozen with shock. "Do you know who I am, puny mortal?" Her voice was strong and terrible.
He glared, raising his chin defiantly. "A talking tree."
She grinned, throwing back her head as she laughed. "You are either very bold or very foolish," she told him, amused. "I am Misanda, Seer of the Moaning Wood." Then the Seer raised a finger at him, her hands crackling with energy and a dangerous look in her eyes. "And you, little mortal, are trespassing!"
Tamain scrambled backwards, his heart thudding. He was so very, very dead.
The Seer tilted her head, the energy fading. "Perhaps I will forgive your intrusion." She smiled at her prey. "Do you wish for the cure?"
"If you mean death, then no," he growled, circling away from her. He had pulled out both his knives, but they would do little good against a Seer. Chilling, choking fear coursed down his spine.
Misanda sighed. "I was hoping you would prove wiser than the others." She flexed her hands, green energy swirling outward, coursing along her body until she was encased in a swirling cloud. In one bound she crossed the room and caught him up in her hands, the thorny tips digging into his skin. She held him fast as the energy swirled to cover him. It felt like a thousand points of fire had pierced his flesh, burning him up from the inside. Tamain screamed, convulsing in the Seer's embrace. His hands clawed futilely at the Seer's.
The forgotten amulet, half dangling out of his cloak, flashed blue. There was a sharp sparking sound. Blue fire roared, eating at the wood of her body. Misanda dropped him with a howl. "No!...Not my children, not..." she broke off into mumbling.
Tamain fell to the ground. His lungs were sore, his clothing charred. He braced himself against the floor, shuddering, and coughed up flecks of crimson. Currents of pain rippled along his spine. He let his face sink into his hands, groaning.
When he tried to move his limbs were set on fire, and he had to pause to breathe. Slowly he managed to crawl, puffing, to his knees. He gripped the window ledge, pulling himself up to lean against it. Then he steeled himself and peered outward.
The tall, ancient trees, Brin's only redeeming features, were consumed in brilliant flames. Many had already been reduced to ashen husks, and screams rang out. Tamain swallowed back bile.
A vague sense of responsibility settled in his stomach, sharpening into a dagger of pain. He let go of the window with a cry.
The house was burning; it's crackling mingling with the cries of the Seer, who lay charred on the floor. Thick smoke rapidly filled the room, cutting off the clean air. A silver tear dropped to the floor.
And the forest burned.